She opened the album at the beginning, and tried to slide the papers back into the empty slots. A man named Oscar, no one she remembered, had died in 1984. A clipping about Katsu Tatami from 1986. Here was the bulletin for Terrence Robinson, Nico’s Terrence. How odd—she must have put this bulletin together herself, but she didn’t remember it. Jonathan Bird. Dwight Sumner. There were so many of them, so impossibly many.
Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers puts readers in the middle of the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago and simultaneously lets readers see the long-term aftermath of being caught in the middle of such a tragedy. In alternating chapters, she takes readers from past to present, raising the stakes in both storylines as we learn more about the people involved. In the 1980s, Yale Tishman, who is helping establish an art museum at Northwestern, is watching one friend after another die. And in 2015, Fiona Marcus, the sister of one of Yale’s dead friends, is trying to find her daughter, believed lost to a cult and now fled to Paris.
On the surface, this sounds like so many recent literary novels. Alternating timelines. Doomed characters. Political resonance. A sense of history. But I found this to be a cut above most such novels, many of which are perfectly serviceable without entirely pulling me in. This pulled me in. First, and perhaps most obviously, Makkai puts names, faces, personalities, memories, and lives behind the grim statistics of the AIDS crisis. The early scenes of Yale, Fiona, and their friends in the 1980s show a robust and caring found family, people who stand up for each other and take care of each other, even when they don’t always like each other.
But, as important as that is, I wouldn’t want this book to be dismissed as simply a fictional chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. Makkai pulls in stories from other eras to show that tragedy reverberates across generations. Yale spends a lot of his time with Nora, Fiona’s elderly aunt, who hopes to donate her art collection to Yale’s museum. The collection is made up of sketches and other works given to Nora by the artists she was friends with in Paris before and after World War I. This community of artists, much like the gay men of 1980s Chicago, saw one member after another die, first to war and then to PTSD. Nora is haunted by one man in particular, who never even got a chance to become known. The loss never leaves her.
In 2015, Fiona is similarly haunted by the many men she came to love, before and after her brother’s death. Fiona became sort of a community caregiver, visiting in the hospital, sometimes even taking on the power of attorney. As the book goes on and more of her memories are revealed, we learn before it even happens just how few survivors there will be.
For much of the book, this present-day narrative lacks the same sense of urgency as the 1980s story. This is one woman, chasing one daughter. Not a whole community of men dying one after another. But, especially toward the end of the book, it becomes evident how Fiona’s past brought her to the place she is, how that tragedy that began when she was still a teenager shaped her ability to mother her daughter.
There are at least two different points in the novel where characters talk about how nice it would be to have all the people one loves all together in one community, those who are dead and those who live. But I think the novel shows, in a not at all sappy or sentimental way, that the dead are always with us. For the characters in the book, they live in works of art. But they also live in how they shape us, how loving them shapes us, how losing them shapes us. The dead are never totally gone.